English Idioms: It’s Greek to me - or Spanish?

It can be a lot of fun to compare idioms in your native language with those in English. For example, when you don’t understand something, it is Greek or Spanish? We like to share some of our favorite English idioms dealing with nationalities and country names. Learn how to use them and be a step closer to speaking like a US native!

What are idioms?

Idioms, proverbs and expressions are phrases which usually make little sense if taken literally. That is why it is so important to familiarize yourself with the meanings and usage of them when learning a foreign language. 

  • According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an idiom is defined as “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.”
  • It is also a natural expression usually unique to a certain group of people or language.
  • Every language has thousands of idioms and they are used so often that you probably don’t even know you speak with them every day.
  • When it comes to how many idioms there are in the English language, there are only ballpark estimates because it is so difficult to define them.
  • The American Heritage Dictionary, which is a collection of idiomatic words and phrases, has almost 10,000 entries for the English language. 

USA Flag Knockout English LanguageIdioms are more than just figures of speech though. These expressions reflect the culture and history of the people speaking the language. In the USA, for example, there are many expressions dealing with sports, like a ballpark estimate or to cover one’s bases. This is because baseball is a very important aspect of American culture.

Learning idioms when learning English will help broaden not only your understanding of the language, but also the culture. And since we are on the topic of culture, we want to share the best American idioms using countries and nationalities!

It’s Greek to me

Greek Flag Knockout English LanguageOr is it Chinese, Spanish or Latin to you? This lovely idiom in English is used when you cannot understand something. If you are trying to explain Quantum Physics to your friend, they might reply with “It’s Greek to me!”. The origin of this phrase most likely comes from a similar phrase in Latin: "Graecum est; non legitur" ("it is Greek, [therefore] it cannot be read").

During the Middle Ages, monks copying manuscripts would write this phrase if they could not read Greek directly in the book. In the past, it literally meant that the monks did not understand the Greek language.

In the 16th century, the phrase became popular again due to none other than the king of the English language, Shakespeare!

  • In his 1599 play Julius Caesar, this phrase came up in a conversation between Cassius and Casca.
  • In the play, Casca is asked if Cicero spoke and Casca replies that he did, but he could not understand him because he was speaking Greek and he did not understand.
  • He expressed this as “it’s Greek to me”. The phrase stuck in the English language and is still said centuries later in the USA!

Interestingly, it is common for different languages to use country names to describe something that is not understandable. For example, Germans say something is Spanish, the Danes describe anything unclear as Russian, the French and Hungarians think Chinese is difficult and the Finnish can’t understand Hebrew. I am sure Americans will understand you though!

Dutch courage and to go Dutch

Netherlands Flag Knockout English LanguageSome people claim to speak a foreign language better after a beer. With a little bit of alcohol they feel more confident and no longer inhibited by the fear of making a mistake. You could say that a little “Dutch courage” goes a long way when learning a foreign language!

Dutch courage is an idiom describing the confidence boost or courage you feel after drinking alcohol. The most popular story behind this expression goes as far back as the Thirty Year’s War. The Dutch invented gin in the early 17th century and it became a popular drink for British soldiers fighting in the war. It was said to keep them warm and have a calming effect on them before they entered the battle.

Another version of the story is that English soldiers admired the brave Dutch soldiers who got their courage from gulping down gin before the battle. While under the rule of the Dutch King William III, who is better known as William the Orange, the use of this idiom and the popularity of gin grew in England.

  • The Dutch have had a great influence on idioms in the English language. For example, if you have a Dutch uncle, it means you have someone giving you direct and stern advice.
  • Another very popular idiom in the English language is the expression “to go Dutch”. Let’s say you go out with a group of friends for a meal at a restaurant. To go Dutch simply means to split the bill so that every individual person pays for their own meal. This is very common in the USA, so don’t be surprised if going Dutch is the preferred way to pay in a restaurant.

To go Dutch, however, was not coined in the 17th century when England and the Netherlands were butting heads over naval power. One of the first recordings of its use was in an American newspaper in 1897. The Fort Wayne Morning Journal in 1897 describes someone going on a Dutch lunch plan, everybody for themselves. It is still disputed whether the expression was used by the Americans to refer to the habits of the Dutch living in the United States at the time, or whether the expression refers to the Germans in Pennsylvania known as the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Pardon my French

France Flag Knockout English LanguagePardon my French, but it has been a hell of a day or Pardon my French, but you are an idiot. Despite the warning “pardon my French”, many people may still be insulted if they were just cursed at!

  • Pardon or excuse my French is a very common expression used to warn people that you are about to use curse words or inappropriate language.
  • It is intended as an apology for the offensive language you are about to use - even though you are not really sorry for what you are about to say.
  • The French language has influenced the English language immensely!  

One theory behind this idiom is that it literally refers to a point of time when people did use a lot of French when speaking and they would apologize for it if others did not understand. Nobody really knows why the expression took on the meaning of excusing oneself for saying something nasty. Some say it has to do with American humor.

In the 19th century, sophisticated people usually used French. The expression could have been a way of poking fun at the upper-classes. Funnily enough, the English and French are still poking fun at one another. In France, if someone leaves a party without saying goodbye, it is called “to depart English-style” and in English it is called to “take French leave”. Long histories between countries have great influence on their expressions.

The slow boat to China

China Flag Knockout English LanguageIn 1866, four of England’s fastest clipper ships left a harbor in China carrying tea and raced for London. Since the Suez Canal had not yet been built then, all cargo ships from China had to go around the tip of Africa. It took all four of these ships 99 days to travel over 14,000 miles.

  • The ships sailing from China to London or the United States were therefore not fast.
  • That is why people talk about a “slow boat to China” if something or someone is taking a long time.
  • The use of this idiom is said to have started with poker players in the depression era in the USA.
  • If a poker player (the card shark) was riding the slow boat to China, it meant that they were slowly taking all the money from their opponent.
  • Just like trade was profitable for those shipping tea, poker was profitable for the winner - slow and steady wins the race!

This idiom was also made famous in a 1948 by Frank Loesser’s hit song “On the Slow Boat to China.” In this romantic version of the idiom, he wished that he could spend more time with his lover by riding a slow boat to China. Today, however, you don’t want your boss catching you on the slow boat to China with those important reports! Curiously enough, there are other idioms dealing with China and tea like “What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?

  • This idiom is used in response to something said that is not relevant in a discussion.
  • If you are talking about the best types of apples and someone mentions oranges, you could say that oranges are irrelevant to the discussion be replying with: “What’s that to do with the price of tea in China.”

Another idiom with China and tea is the phrase “not for all the tea in China”. If a person says that they would not skydive for “all the tea in China,” it means that no matter what happens, the person will not be persuaded to do something they don’t want to do. This idiom refers to how much tea was believed to have been in China - a lot! No matter how much money or benefits are offered (like all the tea in China) a person still refuses to do something.

A Mexican standoff

Mexico Flag Knockout English LanguageDuring the Cold War, it is often said that the United States and the USSR were in a Mexican standoff. This idiom refers to any situation in which neither side has an advantage over the other.

  • In a Mexican standoff, two or more parties cannot approach the other party without putting themselves in danger, bringing everything to a standstill.

This trope is often used in cinema. Think of your favorite Western or gangster movie. There is guaranteed to be a Mexican standoff at some point in the film where two or more characters are pointing guns at each other with no person having the advantage over the other.

It is very difficult to trace the origins of this idiom and you could say the history of this idiom has more holes than Swiss cheese! Some studies suggest that the idiom could have become popular during the Mexican-American War in the 19th century. So, the next time you are trying to get your kid to bed and they resist, you could find yourself in a Mexican standoff.

I guess that is enough talk of England! We could go on and on about our favorite idioms with country names. By the way, since you will soon be speaking English like a native, why not apply for the current Green Card Lottery DV-2023! You shouldn’t miss it for all the tea in China! Wherever in the US you might settle, remember to love your neighbor and invite them over to your housewarming party